HBO’s Melancholy Mildred

Lately, with a little help from my HBO hooked-up friends, I’ve been sojourning to 1930s California and peeking into the life of one Mildred Pierce. In the five-part series Mildred Pierce, director Todd Haynes creates a slow-moving, sticky hot and sensual space that is tantalizingly lovely, but somehow always lacking, always out of reach.

His scenes are dotted with Spanish style housing, edged with music that croons and populated by paper thin dresses that flop into conservatively bowed necklines while still managing to hug the hips that carry them. The atmosphere feels hot, a little dusty. Each frame is dipped in wheat colors, dry grass or goldenrod. Little beads of sweat collect at people’s temples. There’s heat, here, work, here, anticipation, anxiety and tension. Haynes’ series imagines the Great Depression as meted out in daily portions. He offers a story of one woman, our title character played by Kate Winslet, in her attempts to scratch out a living and an identity for herself during a stretch of intertwining national and personal hardship.

Mildred is a lady who makes pies, cakes, confections with a careful and steady hand that guarantees technical and flavorful perfection. When we first meet her, she’s busying about her sugared treats frosting the final details onto a beautifully labored product. We learn she has a bit of a cottage industry in the works, that belt tightening is taking place and pennies are not wasted but counted. In these introductory moments we also meet her daughters—Veda, terribly, dramatic, pompous, affected (oh, raaallly, dah-ling, she is) and Moire who is much less cerebral and more expressive in her body. The latter flits around, giggles, pulls grins across her elastic face, is a mini vaudevillian. The way the daughters occupy the space of the first scene (running about, shouting, playing), my anxious gut waited for them to overturn the cake, splatter it across the kitchen floor, destroy Mildred’s work. . . but they didn’t.

I have to say that this feeling, the tense itchy feeling that something ruinous and awful was going to happen (a toppled cake, a fire, a murder, a suicide) were all things that I expected and prepared myself for. But many of the big disasters never really happened. Yes, Mildred endures a number of disappointments. She’s a 1930s divorcee starting her own business and raising two girls, one of whom is so cold and ugly hearted that I sometimes wondered if she was misplaced and actually belonged in a horror movie. The series for the most part tracks the valleys of pain and the peaks of good friendship (and hot sex) that Pierce experiences. But it’s that feeling that something big is going to happen and then it doesn’t—this strange narrative lack that creates a stifling or repressive mood to the piece as a whole.

The last scene, though marked by marriage, is likewise anything but wrapped up tightly. Instead it lingers oddly and concludes with a non-ending. In a move that reminds me of nearly every boozy Hemingway and Fitzgerald short story, Mildred and her husband share a toast of sorts: “Let’s get stinko.” They clink their glasses in an empty restaurant (no longer owned by Mildred) and acknowledge their losses only in order to blot them out with drink.

The series simmers and simmers, but never boils over. That may not be the kind of entertainment we’re immediately drawn to, but it haunts and nags, passes along that repressive/depressive feel that so encompasses Mildred’s world. I wanted her to get angry. I wanted her to get revenge, to become a fiery Fury of old, wreak havoc, go crazy, and get even in fine Greek mythology style. At the very least I wanted her to eat her own damn cake. But she doesn’t. She just quietly takes what she gets over and over again.

Somewhere between perfect curlicues of butter cream and explosive crimes of passion, there’s truth. Mildred Pierce lives slowly, undecidedly, painfully in the mundane expressions of this truth.

3 Responses to “HBO’s Melancholy Mildred”
  1. ana says:

    oops, it’s “Veda” not “Vida.” i told myself to remember this and still i spelled it wrong. spanish brain override, i suppose.

  2. rosemaryvandeuren says:

    I didn’t even know about this version of Mildred pierce. Thanks Ana!

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